- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Director Alex Zamm has an impressive resume of family-focused films, He began his career with comedic short films, earning nominations from the Writer’s Guild of America and for the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film (Maestro). His filmography features a variety of direct-to-DVD films, including R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: Don’t Think of It, and follow-ups to Disney features, including Inspector Gadget 2 and Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, the highest grossing live-action direct-to-DVD film of all time.
Zamm has also directed a number of popular films for television, including Snow, the highest-rated original film on the former ABC Family channel.
For Woody Woodpecker’s feature debut, Zamm and co-writer William Robertson brought the zany, crafty bird to life in an enjoyable family-oriented tale starting Psych and Galavant star Timothy Omundson. Omundson stars as a high-powered lawyer who, with his son (Graham Verchere) and fiancée (Thaila Ayala) venture to family land owned in the lush forest with plans of razing the pristine woods to build an expensive, modern home. With the plans ready, and the construction crew underway, the always-in-control father never prepared for the mischievous, madcap antics of a certain brightly colored Woodpecker who has other plans.
Woody Woodpecker is currently available on DVD and Digital HD now.
HTF: Alex. How are you doing today?
Alex Zamm: I'm doing well. I want to tell you much I enjoy Home Theater Forum. I think it's such a great site, and I find I learn as much about technology, how to keep up with it, as I do about what's the quality of the material coming out!
HTF: Oh, that's great to hear. Thank you. Home Theater can be an expensive habit to have sometimes.
Alex Zamm: Yeah, it's a gateway drug [laughter].
HTF: That’s right [laughter]! I wanted to talk to you about the humor and finding the right approach and balance for family films. Woody breaks the fourth wall a number of times, and those moments seem to work really, really well. They gave me a real chuckle. And I think you've captured the Woody Woodpecker that I remember from my youth, watching characters like Bugs Bunny, and Elmer Fudd, and Tom and Jerry, and even the lesser-known ones like Top Cat.
Alex Zamm: Oh, I loved them.
HTF: Did you find it hard writing for the zany, madcap Woody personality? And in that same vein, was it hard work or did it come more naturally and more instinctively on when and how you'd have the character break the fourth wall?
“[W]e felt that Woody as this troublemaker, as this rude, crude and with a lot of attitude, perpetual teenager, would be great if he had a conspiratorial relationship with the audience...”
Alex Zamm: Yeah. I got to tell you that's such an interesting and intelligent question because so much of the architecture of building a movie, you have to have those conversations before you start writing. We spent a lot of time talking about [not only] knowing who Woody is as a character, but what are the rules of the world. And we felt that Woody as this troublemaker, as this rude, crude and with a lot of attitude, perpetual teenager, would be great if he had a conspiratorial relationship with the audience. That he was inviting us to be with him on his adventures. And so that's why the fourth wall break came and more of the meta-moments where he's drawing on screen or playing a camera out of nowhere. That allowed us to do that.
But what we also realized, is that we had to come up with a set of rules for why. Does Woody, like in the cartoons, interact with an anthropomorphic set of animals in the world and people, or is he the only person in the universe that speaks English? Or [does] he have a conspiratorial relationship with audience and [they are] the ones with the superpower of being able to understand [him]? And the latter is what we arrived at. It's something I had used in Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 where the dogs can talk to the audience, but the humans only hear barking and animal sounds. So once we arrived at the structure of who understands animal talk, then it freed us up to make Woody much more irreverent and sassy. And it becomes a one-sided conversation. It's not dissimilar to Garfield in the sense that Garfield talks to himself a lot of the time, but his owner doesn't understand him.
So once we understood who we were writing for and the way we wanted to write for, which was really the attitude of the 1940s original Woody in the body of a more modern shape of Woody, we could make him as irreverent as possible. There were quite a few added moments of him speaking to the camera and meta-moments. There was one where he rewound the film and wanted to see something again. And we tried a lot of these, and some worked, some didn't. And to be honest, sometimes it comes down to cost. You have a certain budget, and you have a bucket full of ideas, and you can afford a certain number of them.
HTF: You talked about the character of Woody from the '40s. Now, since his introduction in Knock, in 1940, he's gone through a number of different looks. With Disney animators coming on board into his run, he took on a more refined look, a more Disney-fied look, frankly. But the character we see on screen here is different from all that came before, but is still undoubtedly Woody Woodpecker. How hard was it finding the right look for him for his feature film debut?
“It was so important for us to be respectful and reverential to Walter Lantz's legacy...”
Alex Zamm: It was so important for us to be respectful and reverential to Walter Lantz's legacy. And like so many characters; Bugs Bunny's gone through a lot of reincarnations, Mickey Mouse, too. These iconic characters have changed over the years, and many of them became less animal-like and more humanoid over the years. And the original Woody, in part by Bugs Hardaway who designed Bugs Bunny, was much more anarchic. His arms had feathers on them that was like wing protrusions, very, very heavy legs, and he was bottom weighted. And then by the late '40s, he was still bottom weighted, but he was much more evened-out and he had wind-swept hair. We have these design charts, and we went four months of just designing this character, of redesigning him for 3-D versus 2-D. And then we noticed toward the end of the design run, the like early '60s, he has the pompadour, and he's top weighted, and he's more barrel chested. And we said, "You know what? We feel that he shouldn't be so athletic. We want to make him more of a little cuter teenager, so he's a little rounder. He should feel like a perpetual teenager." And we did subtle shifts in the proportions but kept the iconic the same. We wanted to give him back his green eyes and make his tail feathers longer, the way the original were, so they're much more expressive, and his hair tuft and his tail feathers can become expressive extensions of all expression that he does.
But it was a long design process of back and forth, lots of trial and error with endless sheets of overlays of where he was in different phases. And we ultimately arrived at this incarnation of him, and it was two groups who do it. It was Evolver who is a design group I've worked with before, and they used to be at Rhythm and Hues. And then the rigging was done by Cinemotion, a digital text company in Bulgaria who did just a stupendous job. We had to do a lot of design work again once we started seeing how his walk and flight cycles would be, and stick where we wanted his beak to be. It really was informative for us.
HTF: You’ve made films that have very tight budgets, and making the most of that budget, especially with a film like Woody Woodpecker which required a good deal of visual effects work. You talked about having ideas but you can afford only a certain amount of them. How does that inform how the character will look? What was the budget consideration, did you find that to do a certain design element for Woody, it would probably cost too much given how much you would use the character, and how? I ask because the reported budget was $10 million dollars, and yet the amount of time that Woody Woodpecker shows up, it looks like a heck of a lot more expensive movie than that.
“[N]o matter what how small the budget [compared to these other movies], these sequels that I've done for them in the past have to sit side-by-side proudly next to the movies that had 10 times the budget...”
Alex Zamm: Well, I've got to tell you that means the world to me to hear you say that. It really does because I feel so strongly about these movies, no matter what how small the budget [compared to these other movies], these sequels that I've done for them in the past have to sit side-by-side proudly next to the movies that had 10 times the budget.
I started as a cartoonist, and I spend a lot of time planning, pre-vising, and working out the ideas, and visuals of the movie on paper first so that the business plan and the artistic plan can meet together and [through the] methodologies we employ during our tight production schedules and tight budgets, we try to maximize the resources or create the illusion of scale. I know that I can't compete, oftentimes, on the level of spectacle of some of the larger budget films. Inspector Gadget 2 we made for 11.5 or 12 million dollars, but the first one was closer to 100. So we have to be able to compete on character and on inventiveness where we may not have the ability to do spectacle.
There's been a couple of things that really helped Woody in terms of design. There was a lot of discussions about, can he go in water? Because that becomes another whole interactive element, and we had to limit some of those. You'll see when he catches on fire and dives into the pail of water, he only puts his tail in the water [laughter] to extinguish it. And we thought, "We'll just give him a clever way of turning at the last moment to extinguish the tail as opposed to diving into the lake or something," so that was a concession because we couldn't afford to get him wet. Because it's a different system to make that happen. But we hopefully solved it in a satisfying way with cleverness. But there were other considerations about how his feathers would move and whether they would move in a joined way, or be individual feathers that would move. There was a lot of little tricks and cheats we did so that his hair tuft and feathers are very, very detailed, but the ones where you see the movement are the ones where we have cheats in there. But it's those thoughts that go into the rigging process that affect how the animation goes all downstream. And there's over 500 Woody shots and 1,000 visual effect shots in the whole movie, so we were very conscious of the rigging in order to make this work well.
HTF: Last two questions for you
Alex Zamm: This is like the most interesting conversation I've had in a long time about it. You're asking such thoughtful questions, Neil.
HTF: Thank you! First, I really wanted to talk about the cast because family films skew younger, so you generally have broader, more archetype characters. But the way that Timothy Omundson's character and arc was written, I loved because he plays such a wonderfully good foil that is also a good guy underneath. He did it perfectly in Psych, and I thought he was very good here. So I wanted to talk about writing for that character.
“Tim [Omundson] knew when to push comedically but to keep it all emotionally grounded, and to give a bit of a snide attitude or a self-entitled attitude, but not mustache twirling...”
Alex Zamm: With all the madcap or the physical humor around, and that even happens to Tim, it was very important that the pace of the movie have an emotional core that was real and about a father who's disconnected from his son, the environment, and making some wrong choices. Tim knew when to push comedically but to keep it all emotionally grounded, and to give a bit of a snide attitude or a self-entitled attitude, but not mustache twirling. And we spent a lot of time talking about this and reworking lines once we knew we were writing for Tim, who I'd loved in Galavant and Psych. So the goal was to keep a baseline of a father/son story and not to let that turn into all the other stuff that was much more heightened.
HTF: And finally, back in 2007 or 2008, I had the opportunity to review another of your films on DVD which was The Haunting Hour.
Alex Zamm: Ah!
HTF: I gave it very favorable review. I reread it last night. One of the things I mentioned in that review was your willingness to make the scary actually scary. Last week, I interviewed Lisa Henson, daughter of Jim Henson, talking about Dark Crystal, and we were lamenting that kids movies aren't scary like they used to be, and there's an opportunity in kids movies, and preteen, and teen movies, to actually be okay with scaring their audiences. I wanted to ask you about The Haunting Hour. Is that something you recognized and said, “This is an R.L Stine story, I’m not going to pull anything back?”
“I actually think being scared is important because it enables you to go those emotions in a safe place, and deal with subjects of mortality and the unknown...”
Alex Zamm: I actually think being scared is important because it enables you to go those emotions in a safe place, and deal with subjects of mortality and the unknown. I didn’t want the edge buffed off. We thought that the triumph would be bigger if the threats were more real and more unsettling. So the feeling is that there is actually a healthy catharsis from going through fearful situations and coming out the other side.
HTF: I think that is spot on. Thank you, and best of luck with Woody as it launches on DVD and digital on the 6th.
Alex Zamm: And Netflix, too!
HTF: Thank you!
Alex Zamm: Thank you, again. I have so enjoyed talking with you and your intelligent questions and thoughtfulness. And I'm really excited to continue reading Home Theater Forum!